Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) hold a news conference to introduce legislation to transform public housing as part of their Green New Deal proposal outside the U.S. Capitol November 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. The liberal legislators invited affordable housing advocates and climate change activists to join them for the announcement. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Perhaps sooner than most think, major legislative action regulating greenhouse gas emissions will finally be possible. But that moment will not arrive without deep struggle, organizing, and collective persistence.
JAMES GUSTAVE SPETH August 16, 2022 (CommonDreams.org)
Readers of Common Dreams will appreciate that the U.S. ship of state is in perilous waters. America’s interlinked economic and political systems—our political economy—is failing us across a broad front and has been doing so for a long time. Problems fester, and America finds itself at or near the bottom of the OECD countries and below many others when it comes to attainment in public health, well-being of children, democratic performance, gender equality, environment and climate, poverty reduction, personal safety, social justice and cohesion, and even equal opportunity. Meanwhile, America’s political polarization and hyper-partisanship have effectively paralyzed Washington and halted national progress across this huge swath of concerns. To many, America now seems in steady decline.
The Need for Transformative Change
As a result, there is growing public sentiment in America for deep, transformative change. “Transformation is what we need,” the civil rights leader Rev. William Barber has stressed. The shared background of these sentiments is that America’s problems stem heavily from core flaws in our political economy and not merely from episodic failures and neglect. We are challenged, then, to imagine positive futures for the country that involve serious transformations. Of course, there are forces that push against their realization, and these negative forces seem to have the upper hand today. But new realities are rarely created by realists. Transformative change cannot happen overnight, but as its benefits become clear, it may happen more rapidly than once seemed possible.
Transformative change cannot happen overnight, but as its benefits become clear, it may happen more rapidly than once seemed possible.
Many of these futures embody change so significant that new systems of political economy emerge—new operating systems radically different from today’s. My recent work and that of many colleagues has focused there. (See, e.g., “The New Systems Reader,” Speth and Courrier eds., Routledge, 2021.) Our perspective is that the current U.S. economic and political systems have delivered good results for people, place, and planet only very sporadically and partially and, even then, only after great uphill struggle. Our goal has been to describe new political economies designed and motivated to realize the linked goals of social justice and inclusion, environmental regeneration, democratic citizenship, and peace and justice abroad.
The Climate Complication
But there is a problem in the path of system change and, indeed, in the path of any positive future—the climate problem. Those paths will be blocked or at best severely constricted by the continuation of climate inaction here and abroad. How America and the world address the climate issue will be a powerful determinant of what is possible.
The reality of global warming and climate change is already hard upon us, and it promises to worsen, willy-nilly. Greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are down about 15 percent since 2005, but only back to the high level they were in 1990. A continuation of current trends together with the new Inflation Reduction Act, if carefully implemented, could improve these reductions considerably. But the United States has a long, long way to go. Meanwhile, and disturbingly, global greenhouse gas emissions are up by about 40 percent since 1990.
The emerging climate catastrophe threatens to eclipse positive possibilities in a number of ways. Assume, if we dare, that governments continue their slow and inadequate pace in doing what is so clearly needed—a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for all the culprit gasses across all the offending sectors and all the major countries. In such a case, we know from innumerable scientific reports what is in store for us and the world.
As the climate crisis grows, and the so-called positive feedbacks become stronger, governments, communities, and individuals will all be increasingly forced to deal with multiple problems. Wildfires, droughts, water shortages, severe storms, heat waves, floods, sea level rise, biological losses, the spread of diseases, and other consequences will be among the first-order effects. They will lead to crop failures and famines, other economic losses and disruptions, climate refugees and mass emigrations, political destabilization, resource and other conflicts within and between countries, and costly efforts at adaptation and, most likely, geo-engineering.
As governments and societies struggle to cope with the ensuing situation, the stage will be set for political and other recriminations, scapegoating, anti-immigration hysteria, cross-border and other conflicts, the proliferation of failed and failing states, and political responses that are anti-democratic and authoritarian. Such responses may be brought on by ruthless opportunism but may just as likely result from widespread demand from a public that is fearful, feeling victimized, or betrayed. Meanwhile, governments will likely act to protect their major economic actors and elites, further dividing societies, as well as turning increasingly to their militaries for solutions.
Equally telling will be the psychological burdens and mental problems: the loss of homes, communities, and livelihoods; the millions of “excess deaths” caused by climate change; the destruction of much-loved natural and recreational resources including species, forests, and coastlines; the civil strife and social conflicts spawned by climate change’s effects; the pall of grief, dread, failure, and powerlessness—the list could go on.
It is painful to consider, but scenarios like this are both more likely and more near-term than many imagine.
I have proceeded so far with the assumption of a failed effort at all levels to act responsibly in the face of the climate emergency. In such a world of climate disruption and destabilization, the prospects for positive futures are bleak. At the national and international levels, the capacity to move forward with bold and carefully conceived plans for emissions reductions and climate adaptation will be severely impaired. A world consumed with the consequences of climate chaos will have little time for anything else. The multiple inadequacies and failures of global governance, never strong except in certain economic spheres, will likely be magnified by international tensions and conflicts as well as domestic preoccupations. And at the community level, energies will be monopolized by efforts at simply surviving and coping.
If this analysis is even approximately correct, we must circle back to the assumption made regarding the failure of climate action. We are led again to the well-established but profoundly important need for early and major gains in reducing greenhouse gas emissions here and abroad. Domestic U.S. climate action to reduce emissions and the platform that gives for U.S. leadership internationally are now urgent. It is hard to cajole, rally, and lead the world’s major emitters when there are clay feet at home. The Inflation Reduction Act certainly helps give the United States stronger standing internationally, but, as noted, much more is required.
Climate Change and Transformative Change, Together
Given the need for early action, initial climate gains must be made working within the system of political economy that we now have and not the one we hope to build. At least superficially, this conclusion seems at odds with what many advocates of system change have urged, myself included. The banner, “System Change, Not Climate Change,” makes a regular appearance at climate demonstrations. One of the reasons many with climate concerns have moved to embrace the goal of system change is the realization that the key features of the current U.S. political economy war against effective climate action.
Initial climate gains must be made working within the system of political economy that we now have and not the one we hope to build.
The United States will never be able to go far enough, or fast enough, doing the right things on climate, as long as our systemic priorities are ramping up GDP, growing corporate profits, focusing investments on high financial returns, increasing the incomes of the already well-to-do, neglecting the half of America that is just getting by, promoting runaway consumerism, facilitating great bastions of corporate political and economic power, and helping abroad only modestly or not at all. Our current political economy is prioritized in many wrong ways for dealing with the climate challenge.
Thinking this way, many have come to the conclusion that successfully addressing climate change requires system change. Yet, as I hope I have just shown, it is also true that system change requires successfully addressing climate change. Is there a quandary here? Successfully addressing climate change requires moving to a new system, but moving to a new system requires successfully addressing climate change.
The answer is to envision both transitions, to climate success and to system change, as each happening together, both in two phases. In the nearer term, serious climate action is launched within the framework of our current political economy, and system change begins with seemingly modest efforts, including what are sometimes called non-reformist reforms. Such initiatives seem merely reformist, but they contain the seeds of real change. In the longer term, deeper new system efforts are undertaken and that in turn facilitates more rapid, sustained, and effective climate action.
Making this climate progress in the context of America’s current system of political economy will be like running up a fast down escalator. With sufficient effort it can be done, but sustaining the needed progress decade after decade will require change in the key features of that system. So the way forward now is to proceed simultaneously down the two paths: early, powerful action of the type that has been discussed for decades to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, complemented by the steady introduction of measures, starting with non-reformist reforms, to create a new people- and planet-friendly system—or systems.
Moving Forward Now with Climate Action
So how should the U.S. now proceed with powerful action on climate? We actually know a lot about what must be done in the U.S., by when, and with what measures. The Biden administration is the first U.S. administration to propose moving out of fossil fuels altogether. Its goal of net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases from all sources by 2050 is an admirable start, as is the administration’s interim goal of a 50 percent reduction by 2030. These goals, if fully implemented, would put the United States on a path to participate responsibly in the Paris Agreement and provide badly needed international leadership.
Globally, the agreed objectives are to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2° degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, while simultaneously pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5° Celsius. This 1.5° goal is now slipping rapidly away.
How then might the U.S. move forward here at home, both to achieve the goals the administration has set and to provide the platform needed for U.S. leadership abroad? Over the last few years, the U.S. has seen a significant increase in climate mobilizations led most effectively by youth, Indigenous peoples, and vulnerable communities. Building on this, we need a truly massive civic mobilization, of many types and in many places, following the lead of groups like Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and 350.org. We need the demand for action raised to the highest decibel our civil society can generate. The new activism must focus on state and local action as well as federal. (We are seeing the early results of such activism in the breakthrough in the Senate with the Inflation Reduction Act.)
Second, the environmental and climate movements and many others need to join forces with—and to strengthen greatly—those who are fighting to save our democracy, including securing voting rights and other political reforms. Progressives of all stripes need to leave their traditional advocacy silos, come together to salvage our threatened democracy, and get into the thick of electoral politics, an area of historical neglect by many. Honestly, right now we don’t need more studies or more policy ideas. We need more politicians, good ones, and we need them urgently and at all levels—federal, state, and local. There is no substitute for this.
Thirdly, there is the Third Branch. Over the past 40 years, our executive and legislative branches have failed us badly. They knew and they did not act, except mostly to promote the fossil economy. Action must now be sought in the judiciary. Around the world, legal actions of many types are being brought, including suits to force the fossil giants to pay for their damages as well as suits asserting fundamental rights to a safe and sustaining climate. The United States still lags behind its judicial peers abroad when it comes to judicial action.
Right now we don’t need more studies or more policy ideas. We need more politicians, good ones, and we need them urgently…
And fourth, we need to ensure that all those helping to raise public awareness and the public’s climate IQ continue to expand and deepen their efforts. The media for decades neglected the climate issue, for example, hardly ever mentioning the climate footprint when reporting “natural” disasters. That, fortunately, has changed, but the media could do much more. We must be wary of the media’s tendency to move on to the next hot topic, always searching for novelty. Scientists are speaking out more about risks, urgency, and policy needs, and are making stronger efforts to reach a wider public. Here too more could be done. The faith communities can communicate effectively to large audiences quickly, and, like no one else, can address the very real moral and spiritual dimensions of the climate crisis. Some faith groups are doing this now, and doing it well, but it would be hard to imagine an area with more potential. Leaders in government, business, the military, and other sectors can add importantly, and have much to atone for.
Countering the climate denial and misinformation campaigns is vital too. Our flawed democracy has been left vulnerable to the great political power and money of the fossil fuel industry and its allies. Following the tobacco industry playbook, fossil giants so successfully created climate doubters and deniers that they captured a major political party and a presidency. Social marketing campaigns are needed to deepen the public’s understanding and trust of science, to explain the corrosive effects of social media, and to counter the spread of pernicious myths, falsehoods, and unfounded doubts about climate reality.
Once the political will to act is present, the choice among the many policy instruments advocated for by one group or another is front and center. The various policy approaches have their pros and cons. Several could do the job well if carefully designed, sufficiently demanding, and rigorously enforced. But given the extraordinary lateness of the hour, some of us will only be truly comfortable with a program that has mandatory greenhouse gas phase-down at its core. The United States has experience with legislative enactments of this type in the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972. Such strong climate legislation is not imaginable with the current Congress, but times change. The demand for strong action will increase, and new members of Congress may welcome that.
Internationally, there is much the U.S. needs to do, and do better. Engagement with China on climate by the U.S. has got to take priority, and assistance in the hard-hit developing world must be sharply increased. Concerted international action will be needed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to protect natural areas. It is also time for hitherto missing U.S. leadership in reforming the international machinery of global climate governance. The failure of that machinery was on display at the recent Glasgow meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the climate treaty. There have now been 26 of these COPs, and they have failed at their basic purpose. These mega-meetings have not exactly been a waste of time, but they have surely wasted a lot of time.
Right now, the intensification of the climate crisis is leading in two inevitable directions: public demand for action to reduce emissions is growing, and, even more rapidly, demand is growing for action to cope with and adapt to climate change’s consequences. Perhaps sooner than most think, there will come a point when public demand in the United States for corrective action to free us from fossil fuels is sufficiently intense that, if a unified NGO community and others are prepared, then at that point decisive, major legislative action will finally be possible. That is the moment for which we must be ready, but for which we are not prepared today. Delay at that point would be tragic. Simultaneous with the demand for action, climate devastation will be rising steadily, and societies will eventually enter a new realm in which careful climate mitigation prescriptions and international cooperation are steadily foreclosed as societies struggle mainly with the consequences of the emerging climate chaos.
There is no way to claim the future except to act boldly for it. We know what is at stake on individual social and environmental issues like climate. But, on a larger canvas, what is also at stake here in the United States is the success of our experiment in nationhood. If we fail to come together to address the basic problems, we will remain mired in desperate needs, split by deep divisions, and endlessly burdened and diverted by the cumulative consequences of global warming.
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James Gustave (Gus) Speth is currently Distinguished Fellow at The Democracy Collaborative. He is the author, most recently, of They Knew: The U.S. Federal Government’s Fifty-Year Role in Causing the Climate Crisis (MIT Press, 2021). He has served as Dean of the Yale School of the Environment, Administrator of the UN Development Program, and President of the World Resources Institute. He was President Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality chair. His other books include “The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability,” and “America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy.“